Tuesday, April 29, 2008


"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."- Helen Keller

I remember as a little kid picking up clothing from the floor of my bedroom and reading from the tag: “Made in China.” China?

Now several years later, I’m all of a sudden at my hotel in Beijing, ten minutes from Olympic Stadium and just a few months before the Beijing Summer Olympics 2008 Games. Without a day of passing, I’m climbing the Great Wall of China, feeling like I’m on top of the world and sharing the moment with some of my best friends from the voyage. Just days before, I had revisited a friend in Hong Kong whom I once shared the soccer field with back in high school. And now, I was enjoying a cup of tea with three Chinese students whom I had randomly met in the middle of a park in Shanghai. For these reasons and more, China was surreal.

Hong Kong’s skyline is intimidating. Every skyscraper is like a monster; each seeks height beyond the clouds as if in a race to the heavens. Some of them look like they were built within the year; others look like they were built twenty years too early. Once immigration officials cleared our ship for disembarkation (and once we confirmed with a travel agent that there were indeed NO Dunkin’ Donuts in Hong Kong), we took a ferry to the mainland city and headed right toward those monsters.

Just a few minutes into the city it became quite obvious that we were, for the most part, completely clueless. For our other ports we have several days to research, read and prepare for our approaching destinations. We were in Vietnam only 48 hours ago, and research took the backburner for China. Essentially, we were lost in a city we knew nothing about. The good thing is we’ve become excellent travelers and if being dropped off in a foreign country is anyone’s favorite game, it’s ours.

We waited at a bus stop and got on a bus. We didn’t know where it was going and we didn’t know how much it cost. We just needed an adventure. Two stops later the bus driver looked back at us and pointed across the street. We took that as our cue to leave and handed him a handful of change and left. We found ourselves at Hong Kong’s Peak Tram—a cable car that takes us to the top of Hong Kong. We boarded the Disney-esque ride to the top to what was supposed to be an amazing view of the Hong Kong skyline. We couldn’t see each other, never mind the skyline. The fog was so horrendous that we were basically living inside a cloud. We sought refuge in the shopping mall and got some lunch before it was time to meet my friend. We walked to a new part of the city to meet up with my friend from home, Yoni.

Yoni was a year younger than me in high school and we played on the same soccer team. Now, he was studying for the semester in Hong Kong. Since we had basically been aimlessly “bus-hopping” for the morning, it was nice to be with someone who actually knew what they were doing!

As my friends and I walked alongside Yoni through the city we were all a bit amazed by it all. Just by the way my feet took every step of the pavement I knew the energy of Hong Kong was flowing right through me. Like most Asian cities, there were people walking everywhere, things lighting-up, and always something moving. Yoni took us to the Guinness Book of World Record’s longest escalator in the world, through the subway system, to the restaurant district, the bar district and then to some markets. We stopped by the goldfish market where hundreds of fish swimming around in little baggies were pinned to boards outside various shops. Eeels, turtles and frogs joined as they swam around in tanks along the sidewalk. We went to the bird market where, same story, birds were cooped up in small cages and being sold. It was weird to see two entire streets dedicated to goldfish and birds in the middle of a huge international city. Though it was somewhat disturbing, in a country where dog is a delicacy it could have been a lot worse. After doing our city orientation with Yoni, the sun began to set so we said goodbye then headed back to the ship to shower and get dressed.

We departed in our finest clothes to enjoy Hong Kong’s nightly laser show, dinner and the nightlife. Hong Kong’s famous 8pm laser lightshow is a really unique spectacle. Watching from the island where our ship was docked, we saw the city skyscrapers come to life as lasers and lights, set-atop the buildings, danced and coincided to music broadcast around the city. After, we took to the subway and headed into the city for Chinese food—namely, for some of the best sweet and sour pork we’ve ever had. After, we headed to the bar district where Hong Kong’s extremely, extremely high prices were universal. We had already shelled out way too much money on dinner, so we went to the local 7-Eleven and asked an English-speaking man about drinking laws in the city. With the law in our favor, we had some beverages on the sidewalk before heading to a few bars. Outside, the streets were packed with hundreds of people dancing to the music. The nightlife was less about the bars, but rather the social interaction in between them. Blame it on the British, but Hong Kong definitely knows how to party.

The next morning I had my first big trip sponsored and arranged by SAS, a trip with 60 of us in total. Many of my good friends including Bob, Sara, Nick, Jesse, Kate, Kierstyn and Kathleen were also with me so I was thrilled. For once I did not have to plan my own trip. We had our flights already booked, our restaurants reserved and our sightseeing tickets in-hand. We were headed to mainland China, a separate government and economy than Hong Kong requiring entry through a regular immigration process. We went to HK Airport, and off we went to Beijing.

Peking University, the “Harvard” of China, has been hosting Semester at Sea students for the past 10 years. Instead of hiring professional guides, Peking University supplied their students to accompany us to our various destinations in Beijing throughout the week. The opportunity would also give us time to interact and talk with them. In the evenings, we would hang out at the university for activities. On our first night we split into small groups and were given a campus tour. The second night we had a party with them with an open bar. Our trip leader, one of the RD’s from the ship, had asked me on the first day if I wouldn’t mind “emceeing” or otherwise host the party. I’ll do anything especially if it involves me holding a microphone, so another Chinese student and I rocked the mic and organized games to play with the 60 SASers and the 30 Peking students. We sipped on complimentary beer as the Chinese came up with small games to play as examples of their cultural activities. I thought it would only be appropriate to return the favor. In a surprising turn of events, I disrupted the night, with the approval of my shipmates, to challenge the Chinese in a game “Flip-Cup”—a drinking game they had never heard of. The game, which lasted more than a few round, was one of the greatest things I‘ve ever seen. Like most things on this trip, it only gets betters. My friend Amanda and some others took the stage to teach the Chinese the Soulja Boy dance (that would be “rap music” for all you old-timers). It’s hard for us to say that drinking games and rap music is what the American culture is—but when it boils down to it and you look at things through a cultural lens, there are only certain things that bring our generation together and that is certainly one of them. Needless to say, it goes down as one of the greatest memories of this voyage.

In college you will often get asked the question “You want to order in some Chinese food?” If you’ve already had it recently you usually reply, “Nah, I had Chinese last night” because you know that meals can be heavy and overwhelming to the stomach. Well, try going to China and having Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 6 days in a row. Getting myself to eat breakfast in the hotel every morning was an inner struggle between right and wrong. Forget about bacon and eggs—the Chinese eat lo mein, spring rolls, and beef stir-fry for breakfast! At every meal I told myself I couldn’t snarf down another plate of Chinese food—but every day we did. Chinese meals are eaten family style, so large plates of food are usually put on a “Lazy Susan” and spun around to everyone at the table. Some days we would have Chinese dishes that Americans have come to love; other days we would get mystery dishes, including strange meats and un-skinned fish with head, tail and all. We always joked that we were being fed dog, but seriously, we may have.

When we weren’t eating hoards of Chinese food, we were seeing everything a visitor to Beijing would want to see. We went to a cloisonné factory, the Ming Tombs, Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. As far as the all the temples, I am what I call a little “templed out.” I have been to some sort of religious architecture in every port since India, and I was ready to close the book on religious studies for a while. But some of the sights, especially Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City are some of Asia’s most famous and recoznizable landmarks. One night we attended an acrobatic performance at Chaoyang Theater. Seeing people fly through the sky, contortion their body to inconceivable positions, all while balancing plates on their fingertips is something the Chinese, apparently, do best. The Chinese dynasty came to be in 1523 B.C.—we were experiencing China in 2008, seeing where they’ve come from all these years and what “today’s China” has to offer.

And then, of course, there was the Great Wall of China—the great Wonder of the World—a wall of stones stitching through the mountain and an ancient form of protection in order to keep China’s large landmass free of invaders. There is a Chinese saying that says “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” I believe that. The great wall is the biggest, meanest staircase in the entire world. We ran off the bus and went right for the first of many staircases. We climbed. And we climbed some more. We kept our heads high and our eyes on the distant end. We passed families, children and tourists and gave them a smile—we were sharing in an experience with them, just by the simple act of climbing stairs. We stopped periodically to put our heads to the wind and see the distance we had traveled and captured it with our cameras. At each rest point we motivated ourselves to trek on, we had a better view waiting for us at the end.

You would have known we were nearing the end just by our feet—we took every last stride with energy and determination. Our faces began to light up as we saw our fellow shipmates waving from the top of the lookout castle. We did it.

I oriented myself in a stone corner, away from the picture taking and the excitement. I took a deep breath and looked out into the distance. I felt like I had the world below me. I tried to find the places I had been—Brazil, South Africa, India, Vietnam—I knew they were out there…somewhere. My family was somewhere there too, and my friends and my school. Everyone was beyond the Great Wall of China and I wanted everyone to come up and join me. “Take a look,” I would say. “Look where I’ve been.” And that’s how it was. It was a surreal experience that I wish I could have shared with the world. However, it was just as nice to share it with the people I have come to know and love over the past three months. How many people can you say you’ve climbed the Great Wall, let alone, circumnavigated the world with? These moments will hold us together, maybe forever.

Four days spent in Beijing and our trip was nearly over, however our time in China was not. While we were gone our ship traveled two days up the coast of China from the South to the East side to Shanghai. After I almost missed the flight due to an unfortunate series of bathroom trips as a result of a week of Chinese food, I finally nestled comfortably into my AirChina seat and enjoyed the flight to Shanghai to meet up with the ship.

The next morning I woke up to a rainy and dismal sky hovering above Shanghai. Like Hong Kong, I knew nothing about this new city and after breakfast I was thankful to run into Jake who knew a bit more than myself. We grabbed a taxi, pointed to a general area on our over-sized tourist map, and found ourselves in the middle of skyscrapers—nothing new. We poked out heads into some fancy hotels and proceeded to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a ridiculously looking tower hovering over the city. Whatever it was, we paid some money to take an elevator to the top. We enjoyed the view, including a bird’s eye sighting of our home docked in the Shanghai river, then proceeded down a level to a cheesy indoor amusement park where we rode a small roller coaster for a good laugh and cheap thrill.
One thrill after another, Jake and I went to Shanghai’s very own Hooter’s restaurant—most likely built for American businessmen in the city on business trips.

Next, came the biggest surprise of the week. Aimlessly strolling through a park in the city we were approached by three Chinese students our age who asked if we could take a photo of them. Clearly, we obliged. Thrilled to meet some natives that knew basic English, we engaged in conversation with them telling them all about our journey. Perhaps feeling bad for two guys walking around the city on a rainy day without anything to do, they invited us to enjoy some tea with them. Without thinking twice, we continued with them to a Chinese tea ceremony. The ceremony was probably not as peaceful as they usually are just for the mere fact that the six of us in a small tea room could not stop talking. Tea was less important; a unique cultural exchange that was taking place

Here were three Chinese students and two American students who met an hour ago on a rainy day in the park and were now being offered the Chinese highest form of respect to a stranger—offering to have tea with them. We spent three hours in the tea room as I casually scribbled notes on a small piece of paper so that I could remember all the interesting things they were sharing with me. Our new friends Huang Sun, Zhang Le and Chen Yi Mi (or, Thomas, Jack and Emmie according to their self-appointed “American names”) walked around with us for the rest of the day with non-stop walking and talking around their city. They suggested we attend a Chinese acrobatic show with them that night, but with the approaching on-ship time for our destination we had to decline and sadly depart after we exchanged e-mails. By the time we reached Japan, I already had two new e-mails from our new friends.

They say life can be measured by anything—miles, minutes, laughs or tears. By the end of China I had been to three cities, been on two planes, seen a Wonder of the World, saw an old friend, met three new ones, and ate eighteen meals of Chinese food. I don’t know exactly how that calculates to travel experience but I think if you add it all up it means that I truly “conquered” China.

And as for that place printed on the tag of my t-shirt—“Made in China”—I’ve been there, that’s not such a mystery anymore.

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